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Lakers have bigger problems than the Heat

They first must get through the West, against the drastically improved Spurs and Mavericks.

December 25, 2010|Mark Heisler

Happily for the Lakers — or as happily as anything can be now — they don't have to worry about beating Miami in the Finals.

Who said the Lakers will make the Finals?

One game never means anything, even if it's on Christmas and bidding on EBay for two courtside tickets reached $41,440.

So, as bad as the Lakers looked, with the Heat walking on them in a 96-80 rout, that doesn't mean it's time to start worrying.

It was time to start worrying a week or two ago, with San Antonio and Dallas showing they weren't the same old Spurs and Mavericks.

For the Lakers, who dominated the West for three seasons, spending 34 days out of first place in the last two, it's a whole new deal.

In 2007-08, the second-best team in the West was the overachieving New Orleans Hornets.

In 2008-09, the second-best team was the volatile Denver Nuggets.

Last season, the second-best team was the reborn Phoenix Suns.

At this point, the Spurs and Mavericks are bigger, deeper — and better — than any Lakers challenger over that span.

Two seasons ago, the Lakers led the West wire-to-wire.

Last season, they took over first place Dec. 1 and led the rest of the way.

This season they trail the Spurs by 4½ games and the Mavericks by three.

Oh, and unless the Lakers overhaul both, they'll be in line to play both in the playoffs, rather than the Spurs-Mavericks winner.

Of course, the Spurs and Mavericks have been around for years, continuing to win 50 or so games but expiring meekly in the playoffs.

If the Lakers liked it that way, these aren't the same getting-older-by-the-minute Spurs and never-were-good-enough Mavericks.

The Spurs are younger, deeper and bigger — with size they haven't even begun to utilize in 6-foot-11 rookie Tiago Splitter, with their Big Three healthy and Manu Ginobili showing how good he was all along as a starter.

"They've been this way for a decade," Kobe Bryant said recently.

"Fans continue to be surprised, but they're not sneaking up on us."

At this point, the Lakers will have to sneak up on the Spurs, if anything.

The Mavericks, who were already big and deep, got bigger and deeper with 7-foot Tyson Chandler, healthy for the first time since anchoring those 2007-08 Hornets, supplanting the journeyman Erick Dampier- Brendan Haywood tandem.

"In the eight years I've been doing this, there have been three teams I saw where I thought, 'This was a team!' " ESPN Heat beat writer Brian Windhorst said of last week's Mavericks win in Miami.

"One was the 2003-04 Pistons when they got Rasheed Wallace and they were holding everybody to 65 points a game.

"One was the Lakers two years ago, because of their sheer size with the Pau Gasol- Andrew Bynum- Lamar Odom triumvirate.

"And the third was Dallas, which was up 13 points in the first quarter — and then put in Jason Terry and Shawn Marion — and you're going this is a bench!

"They're also the best zone defense team I've ever seen."

Actually, if the Lakers bottomed out in their last two games — they hope — their problem isn't getting back to being what they've been.

The problem is that may not be good enough with so many other teams — Boston, Miami, San Antonio, Dallas — so dramatically improved.

The Celtics, who led by 13 points in the second half of Game 7 in the Finals, have dedicated to making sure Game 7 is in Boston this time.

The Celtics now lead the Lakers by three games... which would come into play only if the Lakers make it out of the West.

In Lakerdom, the key words are "Andrew Bynum."

Saturday, in his fifth game, Bynum played seven minutes in the first half, so despite making two jump hooks over overmatched Joel Anthony, he had little impact.

The Lakers say Andrew's knee is OK, but he's way out of shape.

If the knee isn't OK, then the Lakers really have problems, or, to put it another way, aren't good enough.

In fact, Bynum reported "tweaks" after last Sunday's game in Toronto, where he scored 16 points in his best showing.

The Lakers say it's going to be that way and he'll have to play through it.

Actually, it's going to be this way for all of them this season. They'll have to play through it. The cakewalk days are over.

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